Shakespeare before the diversity thought police got to him

I am reluctant to visit my old cultural haunts these days; I don’t bother anymore with the RSC, The Globe or National Theatre anymore. Like the BBC they don’t seem to want me, a middle-aged white person, in the audience and I don’t want to pay to be annoyed or depressed. But I found a residue of the delightful past this week, visiting a student production of Love’s Labour’s Lost in Oxford.

I nearly didn’t go. This early comedy by Shakespeare isn’t my favourite, I can hardly make head nor tail of it, but it was a warm night and the setting for this production was the Provost’s garden in Worcester College.

You walk through a winding wisteria clad Medieval quadrangle into a small, Alice in Wonderland style door way, into twenty-six acres of trees and landscape, with shrubberies planted in the Regency era, lush banana plants and burgeoning roses.

The play was performed against the classical façade of the Provost’s house, with its symmetrical winding stair-cases. Provost, Shakespeare scholar and author, Sir Jonathan Bate gave us an erudite fifteen minutes about the play, wearing a brightly coloured bow-tie with geometric designs which I admired.

‘I bought it in The Guggenheim in Venice,’ he told me.

In the shade of a vast copper beech, chatting a bit about that collection seemed quite ordinary, as if everyone shares the same culture and canon of knowledge. I was suddenly transported, forty years too late, to University the way I imagined it would be, where people swan about in a beautiful environment all sharing, or aspiring to share, the same appreciation of high culture, with no tortuous doubts about what that culture is or who it belongs to.

Cosmic Arts, a student group based in Oxford who staged the play, included the Provost’s fourteen-year old son, was natural, joyful and talented. One actor was black, one girl played a male character, but the production didn’t try to interfere with the text to make it more ‘inclusive,’ or ‘relevant.’ We got the Bard as he wrote, in an environment close to one he would almost recognise. 

I only visit the RSC productions these days to see more obscure plays, such as The Provoked Wife, by Sir John Vanbrugh, (from a time when Englishmen could be both brilliant play wrights and architects) as directors seem to leave them alone, and employ experienced actors and actresses who speak their lines with understanding. Main-stage by Shakespeare now gets the full impact of political correctness, actors from ethnic minorities who are barely trained and language jettisoned, like a GCSE course book, in favour of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘accessibility.’  There is usually also a tiresome swapping of sexes so that women play men’s roles, still dressed as women. I haven’t yet recovered from seeing a small Asian girl in stilettos trying to play the Duke of Lancaster. For some reason in most modern dress productions, females, even playing war-horse English Dukes, are always dressed like tarts.

During this performance at Worcester College I felt vaguely guilty, as I did when recently watching the Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet; could this be justified; a mainly white audience watching a mainly white cast perform a pre-industrial play by a white man?

The cultural strife all around us, has affected even me. No attempt was being made to urbanise the production; no leather jackets, chains, nose-studs, tats, grime or rap music. Not much music at all, for once, but to enhance the 1920’s setting in the Provost’s garden of Worcester, a pre war Rolls Royce Silver Ghost driving up to discharge a group of young women singing ‘S’Wonderful,’ by the Gershwins,

There we all were, quite shameless with our Pimm’s and Prosecco, like people before the current ‘Kulture Kampf’ broke out. Were we not going to be struck down at any moment by an avenging angel in the likeness of David Lammy? No, nothing happened, not even a drop of summer rain. Sitting in the lovely garden, that struggle which began long ago in America over abortion, drugs, feminism, gay grievances, racism, and now transgender politics and multiculturalism, broken down into the vicious shards of interest politics, floated away across the lake.

Nevertheless as usual I scribbled down a few choice phrases to help me in my role as Twitter warrior. Next time I see illiterate, vague but furious messages, usually from the young calling everyone they don’t like, ‘fascists,’ I shall reply, ‘I wot not what you are on about.’

If seriously annoyed I shall riposte: ‘Thou interruptest our merriment. Avaunt Ye!’

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5 Comments on Shakespeare before the diversity thought police got to him

  1. “I haven’t yet recovered from seeing a small Asian girl in stilettos trying to play the Duke of Lancaster. For some reason in most modern dress productions, females, even playing war-horse English Dukes, are always dressed like tarts.”
    The very absurdity of such casting would surely have delighted WS, like the idiocy of casting a deranged mem’sab as the PM.
    A delightful review, thank you Jane.

  2. I remember the South Bank Complex when it was a quiet and civilised cultural centre. In particular it was a great place to see performances of classical music. I also liked the cool austerity of the much-despised concrete structures. Now the whole place is functioning as temple of intersectionality. Classical music is tolerated rather than celebrated and must justify its existence with plenty of inclusiveness and diversity. As for the overall character of the place – it has become an ugly magnet for oafish tourists as well as local yobs and their vulgar girlfriends. That’s non-elitism for you.

  3. That photo looks like Rylance (who’s joined the climate fanatics) in the Globe’s all male Twelfth Night – worth a try but a failure in my opinion. WS is safe from the lightweights of the modern theatre – you can’t do away with the text, and that text was written by a philosopher who knew (and mocked) his Aristotle and Pythagoras, and who anticipated C20th Existentialism. When directors put (undue?) emphasis on lines, all it does it make us wonder. (I know you of old, says Beatrice to Benedick in a modern version I have on DVD – we having already seen the pair in bed. Did it mean that? Does it matter?) The Globe and the RSC do a good job without any discernible attempts to get woke – in the productions I’ve seen. We should pity anyone who thinks they can make Shakespeare better than he is. That level of delusion requires chlorpromazine.

  4. Wonderful article!

    It seems our bright young producers, armed with the unassailable pretext of rendering Shakespeare inclusive, have made matters perfectly indecipherable. I guess I’ll become an academician of post-structuralism before
    venturing to present my mug at The Tempest anytime soon. The bastards have probably made short work of Marlow by now too; but maybe an unassuming seat at a Heywood or Jonson is still safe?

    I especially like how the article excavates the guilt our progressivist can conjure in even the most resistant soul. Religious guilt is likely excluded but political guilt comes with the price of the tickets. Normally a couple bourbons
    can wash away the hardiest of guilts. But then We’d drunkenly lose track that the darkish one with the lipstick is really mighty Bolingbroke. Next they’ll give us a white Othello just out of spite!

  5. Methinks some do protest too much. I’ve the complete BBC set from the 1980s and a couple of dozen DVDs of live performances from the Globe and RSC and none of them distort WS in any way. How can you twist something that is universal, international and for all time? Cross dressing and mistaken identities are commonplace in drama and opera of the past. Suppose a director gave us (to take an absurdity) a white female disabled queer Othello. What then? Would we not be intrigued and respond according to how it was carried off? Nothing is lost and thought provoked by a female Prospero. All male casts – as in WSs time don’t work – but that’s just an opinion. Does anyone seriously think that WS would raise an eyebrow at anything we do if he were to reappear in today’s world?
    He might be surprised we are so ignorant of Greek philosophy and wonder why audiences laugh in the ‘wrong’ place when Malvolio is asked about Pythagoras.
    Who cares? Our remedies oft in ourselves to lie. He might recall Democritus: The world’s a stage: life is our entrance. We come, we see, we go away.

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